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Barnabas The Encourager: A Brief Biography

Both Luke and Apostle Paul write of how Paul and Barnabas worked closely together on their church apostolic adventures. In any study, Paul usually steals the limelight. But what about Barnabas? What did he do? What can we learn from him?

Was Barnabas (Joseph) one of the original 120 on the Day of Pentecost? Or was it shortly after that he was drawn to that early fellowship of believers? Second century church father, Clement of Alexandria, held him to be one of the Seventy sent out by Jesus. Certainly, he came from a Cypriot Jewish priestly family and, in those early golden years of the church, sold a field and laid the money ‘at the apostles’ feet’. Very soon, he became someone of note to the apostles and they called him, not Joseph, but ‘Barnabas’ meaning ‘one who encourages or exhorts’.

The early golden days of the Jerusalem community were short-lived, perhaps lasting no longer than two years. The disciples were scattered as Paul ravaged the church and Barnabas next appears in the story when Paul, now converted, appears in Jerusalem (c.AD 37). Not surprisingly, the disciples were wary; it was Barnabas, proactive and courageous, who approached Paul, listened to his story and introduced him to the apostles. Barnabas had opened a door: Paul, now a brother, freely moved amongst the people he had once tried to destroy.

Wherever the early scattered Christians went, they spoke of Jesus to Jews – but some, arriving in Antioch (today’s S.E. Turkey), broke rank and spoke to Gentiles and, ‘ a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord’.

When news of this reached the apostles in Jerusalem, they sent the respected Barnabas who, ‘when he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.’ (Acts 11:23-24)

These disciples were not like the early Jewish converts. They were raw! Antioch, the third largest city in the empire, was highly cosmopolitan, renowned for temple prostitution, idol worship and promiscuity. These disciples needed a huge amount of input – and they were numerous. Barnabas, stretched to the limit, needed help and around the year AD 46 he made the 150 mile journey to Tarsus to search out Paul.

Back in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas set to work to teach these first gentile disciples; what patience and love was needed! But not for long. A year or so later, a simple Spirit-inspired directive came in a prayer meeting: ‘Set apart for me Paul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them’ and the two of them, along with John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin, left for Cyprus and an arduous trek deep into the heart of Asia Minor. Along route two changes took place: John Mark left for home and Barnabas, the leader of the party, took second place to Paul.

Hardship, sacrifice, risk, persecution and fruitfulness: Paul and Barnabas finally returned to Antioch – but not to peace. Friction was mounting: not all agreed with Paul and Barnabas’ large-hearted and wholesale inclusion of the Gentiles. Surely these new converts must become Jewish proselytes and, in particular, undergo circumcision? Barnabas’s tact was needed and Paul and Barnabas were sent down to Jerusalem to discuss the issue at a specially convened council in c.AD 49.

Trailblazing apostle, teacher, prophet, evangelist: Barnabas: long–dead but his life still speaks.

Paul was restless. He wanted to return to the newly-planted churches and expand the mission. Should they take John Mark again? Sadly, the two men disagreed. Perhaps Barnabas, the ever-encourager, the one who had first believed in Paul, wanted to give his cousin a second chance. Perhaps Paul felt let down or didn’t want to take a further risk. They parted ways: Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus; Paul and Silas went to Asia Minor.

Was this the end of the story? Fortunately not. A few years later, in c.AD 53-54, Paul refers to his colleague Barnabas in his first letter to the Corinthians, implying that fellowship between the two men had been restored and the conflict was resolved.

Finally, according to church tradition, Barnabas was martyred in Cyprus in c.AD 61. Some Jews, exasperated at his success, dragged him out the synagogue and stoned him.

Trailblazing apostle, teacher, prophet, evangelist: Barnabas: long–dead but his life still speaks.

Barnabas embraced huge changes in his life – Cyprus – Jerusalem –Antioch – missionary journeys (first with Paul and then with John Mark) – and finally a martyr’s crown. He moved on. He heard the fresh call of God, leaving the familiarity of his native Jewish church for the demands of an infant Gentile one. Barnabas the pioneer: flexible, open, always ready to embrace new challenges and change.

Barnabas recognised God’s work and gifts in people. How different church history may have looked if Barnabas had never first believed in Paul or selected him as his assistant? Supposing he had despaired of those first Christians in Antioch or in the nascent churches he planted? Barnabas knew how to believe in, to nurture, to love. Where Barnabas was, young Christians ‘grew’. John Mark re-emerges in the New Testament story – a writer of the earliest gospel, Mark, no less. How much was that due to Barnabas’s willingness to believe in him and give him a second chance?

Barnabas was a team man. His greatness, in my mind, does not first lie in his pioneering skills but in his willingness and humility in stepping down to be second to a man like Paul. His life was a story of paving the way for others.

Finally, Barnabas was a man of peace who longed for peace. Standing between two factions of the church which could have ripped it apart in those early days. His wisdom, his love, his ability to see the best in people, are surely to be emulated.

Published 8th October 2018 with tags: bible church planting suffering testimony

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